Music in video games: Bioshock Infinite’s anachronistic tunes

If you know anything about the Bioshock trilogy (besides lumbering, drill-toting monsters that will ruin your day), it’s probably that their plots are a real doozy to describe. The first two games, set in the underwater art deco city of Rapture, feature deconstructions of objectivism, utilitarianism, collectivism, probably a few more isms, and an infamous plot twist about the very nature of video game storytelling. All very complex for games that also let you shoot bees out of your hands.

Bioshock Infinite took one look at these two games and thought they were too simple.

In contrast to a dreary ruined underwater city, Infinite takes place in Columbia in 1912, a city in the sky and cult-like colony that reveres a so-called Prophet as its leader. Columbia is a bright, sun-drenched slice of Americana when you arrive in the role of Booker, who is sent to retrieve a young woman called Elizabeth and take her back to New York in order to wipe away his gambling debts.

From when you first arrive in Columbia, the tone is set by the music. Unlike Rapture, which was already a husk of its former self by the start of the first game, Columbia is a living, breathing society, and music is an integral part. On arrival you travel through a golden temple-like area to be baptised before entering the city, while a choir gently sings the Christian hymn “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?”. It’s peaceful, a slow easing into the game.

But even before you inevitably start to unravel the plot, there’s small hints in the music that something odd is afoot. For example, in an early area you pass by a barbershop quartet singing a cover of the Beach Boys’ 1966 song “God Only Knows”. If you don’t listen properly or question the anachronism, it’s easy to dismiss this as a stylistic choice, or maybe a fun Easter egg.

Soon it’s revealed that Columbia’s various anachronisms are all the result of ‘tears’ in space and time that has allowed it to borrow technology from the future. One particular tear appeared in the studio of music producer Albert Fink, who took to plagiarising the tunes and rereleasing them in the style of the era. The first Bioshock game was a huge step forward for environmental storytelling through audio logs, but Infinite takes this a step further by incorporating ambient music into one of its central plot points.

It isn’t just that the music in this game sets the tone of Columbia, or reflects the dimension-hopping plot. At its core the game’s story is about Booker and Elizabeth, the relationship between them and Elizabeth’s growth as she leaves the tower she grew up trapped in. Elizabeth is one of the most beloved companions in gaming, and it’s not just because she provides you with supplies in combat and is thankfully impervious to damage; it’s because she is a fleshed out character and is endlessly endearing, with her compassion and thirst for life providing a foil for the jaded veteran Booker. Once again, music is a shorthand for enhancing this aspect of the story. In one of her first scenes after escaping her tower Elizabeth joyfully explores a beach and boardwalk, while in the background you can hear a carnival cover of Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”, perfect for a girl seeing everything for the first time and excitedly planning her future.

I could spend so much of this article talking about the 1910s styled covers that you can hear in Columbia, and the ways that they are all stunningly appropriate for the plot and characters, but to do so would be to spoil an intricate story spanning multiple realities and enough plot twists to make your head spin, and I’d be lying if I said I completely understood everything that happened. But when boiled down to its fundamentals, moreso than its predecessors, Bioshock Infinite is a character piece. Not a song is featured, even on ambient radios, that isn’t relevant to Booker and Elizabeth’s journey together. Some songs recur – you can play the guitar while Elizabeth sings a more solemn version of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” and tries to give food to a starving child, desperately trying to bring about some good in a corrupt society, and it makes an appearance again at the end of the game in an especially cathartic and tragic way. As the player becomes increasingly emotionally invested in these two characters, each new time you hear a song is more impactful than the last.

Some games have powerful stories, and many of them also have good soundtracks. But rarely does a game so perfectly synthesize character, worldbuilding, storytelling and soundtrack like Bioshock Infinite managed. It is a true testament to the potential of video game music as a storytelling device, rather than just background noise.

Images: Meg Luesley

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